Martina Deuchler – A Life with Korea

On the occasion of the award of an honorary degree by the Faculty of Humanities at the Dies Academicus 2018 of the University of Zurich, the Ethnographic Museum premiered Rolf Probala’s film portrait “Martina Deuchler – Passion for Korea”.

Martina Deuchler

Swiss Koreanist Prof. Dr. Martina Deuchler is a pioneer in exploring the social history of Korea. A film portrait in four parts, realized in 2017 by the Zurich moderator/producer Rolf Probala together with the cinematographer Mike Krishnatreya and the cutter Stefan Muggli from IN­STANTview, was premiered at the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich on April 29, 2018, on the occasion of the award of the honorary degree of the University of Zurich to Prof. Dr. Martina Deuchler at this year’s Dies Academicus.

Herewith we make these short films available for public viewing.

Passion for Korea – A Portrait of Martina Deuchler (Producer Rolf Probala. Zürich 2017).

After studying classical sinology and japanology in Leiden and at Harvard, Martina has been specializing on Korea since the 1960s. This happened at a point in time when the door to a Confucian Korea was just about to close. In the course of her academic career, between 1988 and 2001 as professor of Korean Studies at SOAS in Londen, she has explored major themes of Korean social history from a historical-anthropological perspective.


Passion for KoreaConfucian Gentlemen and Barbarian Envoys (1978) (Producer Rolf Probala. Zürich 2017).

In her first opus, which is based on her dissertation at Harvard University, Martina Deuchler deals with the opening of Korea in 1876. This year marked a fateful moment when – from a Korean perspective – «barbarian envoys» from Japan and later from the West forced the opening of the until then closed kingdom of «Confucian gentlemen» of Choson dynasty (1392-1910).


Passion for Korea – The Confucian Transformation of Korea (1992) (Producer Rolf Probala. Zürich 2017).

In her second work, Martina Deuchler identifies for the first time a dynastic transition from the 14th to the 15th century as an unusual phase of  transformation. Korea was one of the worldwide few societies that translated itself from a bilaterally organized Buddhist society into a patrilineal Confucian society within the span of 200 years. With this «Confucian transformation» Korean society changed fundamentally, in particular the position of women. The ancestral cult became a major instrument to introduce Confucian social structures and virtues. As interesting as the transformation is, the longevity of bilateral characteristics is remarkable and noticeable even today.


Passion for Korea – – Under the Ancestors’ Eyes (2015) (Producer Rolf Probala. Zürich 2017).

In search of the fundamental structure of Korean society, Martina Deuchler  looks back at the history of the genesis of descent groups in her third work.  Since the fifth century, a number of descent groups formed an elite that preserved its dominant political position vis-à-vis the general population and  the slaves for more than two millennia. While public slavery was abolished in 1801 and Korean society started to modernize in the 20th century, the influence of the historical elite remains visible and perceptible at least in South Korea even in the 21st century.



The film was commissioned by the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich. The filmmaker and the Ethnographic Museum thank Prof. Dr. Martina Deuchler, the Museum Rietberg in Zurich, the contributors of visual materials, and for financial support the Office of the Vice President for Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Zurich.